What is the Hepatitis B Virus?

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  • Written By: J.M. Willhite
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 06 September 2019
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The hepatitis B virus (HBV) is a pathogen that causes hepatitis B in humans. Belonging to the virus family known as Hepadnaviridae, hepatitis B virus impairs liver function, placing the organ at risk for permanent functional and physiological damage. Once an individual has been exposed to the hepatitis B virus, precautions may be taken to prevent the development of hepatitis B infection if the individual acts promptly. In the presence of active hepatitis B infection, treatment depends on the severity of symptoms.

Hepatitis B virus is a self-replicating pathogen classified as a DNA virus. Transmitted through bodily fluids, such as blood and saliva, hepatitis B virus is known to settle in the liver where it replicates, damaging liver tissue and impairing organ function. Intravenous drug users and those who engage in unprotected sex are considered at high risk for contracting the hepatitis B virus. Individuals who work in certain career fields, such as law enforcement or health care, are also considered to possess an increased chance for becoming infected due to their interaction with HBV-positive individuals.


Screening for hepatitis B virus is often encouraged for individuals considered at risk for contracting the virus, including those who are HIV-positive. A blood test is most frequently used to diagnose HBV. Those who are diagnosed as HBV-positive will usually undergo additional testing to establish the degree of infection and assess their liver function. In cases where liver function appears impaired, a biopsy may be performed to evaluate the damage and check for abnormalities or malignancy.

The incubation period for HBV to induce active hepatitis B infection generally falls within three months of initial exposure to the pathogen. Symptom presentation is usually dependent on the severity of infection. Common signs of hepatitis B infection include abdominal discomfort, lethargy and loss of appetite. Those with active infection often experience widespread joint discomfort, nausea and vomiting. It is not uncommon for symptomatic individuals to also develop jaundice.

There is no actual treatment for the hepatitis B virus. Individuals who know they have been exposed to the virus are encouraged to seek immediate medical attention. Hepatitis B immune globulin (HBIG) is an immunizing injection utilized to help prevent the onset of active hepatitis B infection and may be administered within the first 24 hours following exposure. Treatment for active hepatitis B infection is dependent on its presentation and severity.

Acute HBV infections generally do not necessitate treatment other than the temporary administration of medication to alleviate symptoms. Chronic hepatitis B infections often require the use of antiviral medications to slow disease progression and liver damage. Those who have sustained extensive liver damage and meet established criteria may be considered for liver transplantation.



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